It was late Sunday night. I had just sent out my first blog newsletter, and I was proofreading it (because I always forget to proofread before I publish). At the time, my biggest concern was whether or not my grammar and spelling was correct. That changed in an instant when I received the news: my grandfather was dead. He had passed away peaceably in the night.
Naturally, I was sad. I will never be able to see him again. Never see him talk sports in his excited, anticipative way. Or see the way he brightened up when he saw his children or grandchildren. He was someone I’d loved for he was family. And even though he’d been declining for a while, there was a part of me that half-expected him to always be there. To always be alive.
But I am also glad, sort of. He had experienced much hardship and pain in his last years. His kidneys had failed, and he’d had to receive dialysis three times a week. His weakened state had restricted him from much travel. Just a few days before his death, he was released from the rehabilitation center where he had been recovering from a minor stroke. So his death was a release from all the suffering he’d been through, and for that, I am glad.
These opposing feelings filled my mind when I first received the news, and they are still present, even now. This leads me to the question: how is one supposed to cope with death? I just described how I responded to death, but is that the right way—the biblical way to respond? Is there even a right way? Surely, there must be. And to understand it, we must first understand what we are trying to cope with: death.
What is Death?
Google defines it as “the action or fact of dying or being killed; the end of the life of a person or organism.” Basically, death is when you die. When you don’t have any life. Very helpful. Let’s look at another definition.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines it as: “a permanent cessation of all vital functions.” This definition is more usable because it actually describes what death is. It is when all components necessary for life stop functioning properly.
Using this definition, you can apply it to multiple areas involving death. Bodily, death is when the heart, lungs, and brain stop working. When there is no heartbeat, breathing, or brain activity, the subject is dead. Mechanically, when a machine or engine can no longer be sustained by its power source, it can be considered dead. A group or organization dissolves when its working members cease from activity and cannot be replaced. Death occurs when all vital functions don’t work properly. This definition is supported by the very origin of death.
The Origin of Death
The first three chapters of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, chronicle the most devastating disaster in the history of mankind: the introduction of death. The story is simple. God made a perfect world instructing man to keep it within God’s rules. Man broke those rules and suffered the consequences. His job was about to get harder.
When Adam, the first man, ate the fruit of the tree, therefore, breaking God’s rules, he ushered in death. God said that if they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die. This is literally translated “dying thou shalt die.” They would start dying and would eventually die. A reference to the “permanent cessation” definition of death.
Not only death, but the sin also ushered in suffering. The job of man, to subdue and multiply throughout the earth, would be complicated due to the presence of pain and weakness. This suffering also brings about death, because the vital functions of man become weaker until they stop functioning.
Death entered the world when Adam sinned, and from that time on, this universe and everything in it has slowly been deteriorating until all vital functions do not work. That is death. However, a different type of death presents itself later in Scripture. This death is far worse than the simple one we know today. It is called the second death.
The Second Death
Rev 20:12-15 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire
At the end of the world, all people will be judged by God either to everlasting life or everlasting death. Everyone will be judged “according to their works,” but what they will receive is based on whether or not their name is in the book of life. If it is not found in the book of life, they will be cast into the lake of fire which is called the second death.
The strange feature of this reference is in the fact that “death and hell were cast into the lake of fire.” How can death be cast into . . . death? It seems like an oxymoron. But it isn’t, when you see death in a different light. With a different definition.
A Lesson from Story
In popular story, there are certain moments that are common in almost all stories. There is the inciting incident—the event that causes the story to happen. There is the climax—the culmination of all the events in the story. There is the midpoint—which may or may not be in the exact middle, but, more importantly, serves as a hinge for the story to turn on. And there is also, the “all is lost” moment.
This moment can be described as the moment when the protagonist has absolutely no hope. The aftermath of a crushing defeat. It’s no wonder, then, that it is also labeled the “dark night of the soul.” But what all “all is lost” moments have in common is death.
It may be the death of a mentor. Or a death of a comrade. Even the death of the protagonist. But the death in this moment can also be the forsaking of friends. The loss of a position. The rejection in a relationship. In a word—separation.
Cessation vs. Separation
On the surface level, separation may seem more trivial than the cessation of vital functions. But it isn’t. Separation is, rather, the more complete definition of death. All types of death.
In modern times, the relationships between people are sometimes equated to life and death, because they, in a sense, are life and death. To the common person, the difference between a relative in a coma, a long-lost relative, and a dead friend is very slight because all three situations involve irreversible separation. This can lead to the sad reality of family members wanting to “pull the plug” on someone in a coma because, to them, they are already dead—already separated.
At the Garden of Eden, Adam didn’t only start dying physically. He was also separated from God as seen through his shame and embarrassment when God called his name. Not only that, God actively thrust him out of the garden. A physical separation as well as a spiritual one. A separation that could only be bridged when the woman’s seed would crush the serpent’s head.
Jesus’ death was both cessation and separation. When He was on the cross, the penalty of the sins of the world was laid on him. He suffered much physical pain ending in death. However, the worst of it came when He was separated from God resulting in His anguished cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The weight of sin was on Him. He was filled with so much sin that God could not look on His own Son. They were separated from each other.
Even death, itself, was initially defined as the separation between soul and body. It was only after the obvious observation that this separation cannot be seen that dictionaries resorted to the cessation definition.
I do not mean to say that separation is true death whereas cessation is not. Rather, separation and cessation are two different types of death. Two types that often go hand-in-hand.
Responding to Death
When a person dies, there is cessation. Cessation of the vital functions of that individual’s body. With that cessation comes separation. Separation between the soul and the body. Separation between the one dying and the people living. Separation between this world and what comes after.
The Bible is clear, however, that there is a hope for Christians. II Corinthians 5:8 instructs us to be “confident, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” We are to “sorrow not, even as others which have no hope” (I Thess. 4:13), because we will be reunited with our loved ones. We should say as David did: “Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (II Sam. 12:23).
But that reunion is still in the future. In the present, we are faced with a very real separation. A very real death. And though the believer must look forward to our reunion, we are allowed to mourn even as Jesus mourned for Lazarus despite His own knowledge of Lazarus’s eventual resurrection (John 11:35). This temporary taste of grief is normal. A result of the curse. It should not, however, be the focus. For while separation in the present time is grievous, there is a much worse separation in the future: the second death (Rev. 20:14).
The second death is not death defined as cessation. It is death defined as separation. Separation from God and His saving grace. Separation from His love because all those who experience the second death has rejected His love anyway. The second death is horrible suffering separated from God.
However, despite this horrendous picture, there is a silver lining for those who believe. Death is thrown into the lake of fire. Cessation is destroyed. All will be eternal and all will be good. The curse instigated by Adam is reversed. There is no more death.
In light of all these facts, there must be a two-fold response toward death. First, grief for the loss. Grief should not be minimized nor magnified. It is a natural response to death, but is handled so often in extremes. Either a complete shunning of all hints of it, or embracing it so much that it is all we see clouding our view of anything else. The Bible recognizes its place, but never focuses on it. Death should be seen as a product of sin. Part of the temporary curse. But it should never be the focus.
Our focus should be on our reunion with Christ (I John 3:2). Not necessarily on a reunion with our dead loved ones, but, more importantly, rejoicing that they are with Christ. That they are away from this cursed world. That they are with God. And even us still left behind. Even we should look toward that blessed hope (Titus 2:13) not only in this situation, but throughout our life. For “everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure” (I John 3:3).